This article originally appeared in the Nov. 7, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
In the fall of 2012, when every West Coast school was trying to woo high-scoring, 5' 9" point guard Kelsey Plum, Washington assistant coach Mike Neighbors took a different approach. Now the Huskies head coach, Neighbors sent several handwritten letters to the prized recruit from La Jolla Country High. But instead of fawning over her skills, he challenged her: “Maybe, if you work really hard, you can be one of the best players I’ve ever coached. Maybe.” Plum appreciated that he dared her to make the hard choice and commit to a school that had won just four NCAA tournament games in the 15 years before she arrived. Three seasons and one Final Four trip later, Plum, a 22-year-old senior, is one of the two most dynamic scorers in the women’s game. And Neighbors is still finding ways to challenge her.
When her coach told Plum at a mid-October practice that he was surprised and disappointed that she had finished seventh of eight in that day’s shooting contest, she responded the next day by hitting her first 39 shots. “We’re not talking about layups and free throws,” Neighbors says. “It was game spots, game shots and game speed, against guys. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
A native of Poway, Calif., Plum grew up playing tackle football in the yard with her cousins and younger brother, Daniel. She was not born with superior speed or agility, but she quickly learned to leverage her naturally muscular frame on the football field. “The only way I could get open was to chuck them,” she says. That same approach worked on the basketball court. So began her love of contact. Plum excels at penetrating and drawing fouls, knowing when and how to lean into a defender before getting her shot off. Last season she led the country in free throw attempts, with 299. She made more (266) than the second player on the list—Indiana’s Tyra Buss—attempted (263). It helps that Plum is exceptionally accurate from the charity stripe, hitting 89.0%, fifth in the nation last season.
Plum has been a perfect fit for the dribble drive motion scheme that Neighbors runs. She also oozes confidence—not unlike her idol, Diana Taurasi, a three-time national champion at UConn from 2002 to ‘04. Plum was so obsessed with the 6-foot guard, widely considered to be the best women’s player in the world, that she joined the Junior Husky club, UConn’s kid fan group, and begged her mom to order VHS tapes of all of Connecticut’s national championship games.
“I had a scrapbook of her,” Plum says. “She was just tougher than everyone else. So fiery, so passionate. She’d talk trash, get into it with Geno [Auriemma]. And from her freshman year, she was fearless. I learned to emulate that.”
Plum’s confidence was shaken early in her career at UW. In 2013–14, Neighbors made her a captain as a freshman. “It was social suicide,” says Plum, whose two older sisters, Kaitlyn and Lauren, played college volleyball at UC Davis and Oregon, respectively, and warned her that seniors might not take kindly to a new kid being handed such a significant role. “I would equate it to being in a war, and going to the front line immediately,” says Plum. Earning the veterans’ respect took time. Even as the upperclassmen begrudgingly accepted Plum’s leadership on the court, she wasn’t popular in the locker room. When teammates shared rides home or went out to dinner together, Plum walked home by herself. Neighbors says now that he gave Plum so much responsibility when she was so young because he knew that it would pay off when she was an upperclassman. And it has.
The tension on the team came to a head last year during a preseason game in Las Vegas. Heading into the locker room at halftime, teammates confronted Plum about not passing the ball enough. “You don’t trust us,” said senior forward Talia Walton. When Neighbors tried to step in, Plum waved him off. This was part of being a leader, and she had to figure it out. Plum says that it wasn’t that she didn’t trust her teammates; she just trusted herself more. The conversation cleared the air, and “the elephant in the room had finally been acknowledged,” Plum says. She realized that she couldn’t do it all herself, but she made it clear that when she did pass the ball, she expected her teammates to hit their shots.
During the Huskies’ run to the Final Four in Indianapolis last March, her teammates came through. Walton averaged 21.8 points in the tournament, and 6' 2" forward Chantel Osahor, who ranked 10th in the nation with 11.3 rebounds per game during the season, charmed tournament viewers by nailing old-school, set-shot threes. Plum still ran the show all year, averaging 25.9 points (fourth-most in D-I) and handing out 4.2 assists. She has set the school single-season scoring record each year she’s been in Seattle, and reached the 2,000-point mark faster than anyone in the history of the Pac-12. By the time her senior season is over she should become the first conference player, male or female, with 3,000 points, and she has an outside chance of breaking the D-I women’s scoring record, set by Jackie Stiles of Southwest Missouri State in 2001 (3,393 points).
Over three seasons Plum has evolved as a passer and as an athlete. She’s fitter than when she arrived on campus, and led the nation in total minutes played (1,414 last season, 38.2 per game). She’s trimmed her body fat to 15%, from 25%. “She’s not 6' 5", she can’t run the 100-meter dash in under 10 seconds,” Neighbors says. “She’s made herself into something because she’s so competitive, because she chose to do it.” He’s proudest of how Plum has developed into a compassionate teammate. It’s a quality Plum likes to talk about too.
These days, Plum isn’t walking home alone anymore. She rooms with three teammates and joins them at Husky Stadium on fall Saturdays to cheer on the football team. “There’s a freedom that comes with knowing your teammates love you, trust you and want you to lead,” she says. “You win more games, and have more fun when everyone is getting along.” UW’s Final Four trip is evidence of that.
After losing three players from last year, Washington is picked to finish third in the Pac-12, and many pundits doubt its chances to return to the Final Four. They may not know how Kelsey Plum responds to a challenge.